When “easy mode” isn’t enough: An analysis of unclear lessons in video games

wonder whether other video games should do the same thing. And we loved how the launched in 2014 with an option to hop to any moment within its multi-game library. That prompted us to suggest that more games should let their owners flip to any “page” in a game as they please instead of forcing players to earn their way via challenge.

This week, a gaming and pop-culture critique channel on YouTube looked at the existential question of “video game access” from a wholly different perspective: a year-long analysis of an adult trying video games for the first time in her life. The results, as posted by the channel Razbuten, have been embedded below, and the 20-minute analysis is fascinating on both a macro and micro level.

Even Mario could learn a thing or two

Instead of calling the video “I made my wife suffer through video games for her first time ever,” Razbuten opted for a title that speaks to the inherent learning curve for anyone new to the hobby. “What Games Are Like For Someone Who Doesn’t Play Games” came as a result of a full year of the host’s wife testing nine video games she’d never played before: , , , , (2016), , , , and .

Those nine games were chosen due to their “diverse set of genres and gameplay mechanics, and, well, I liked them,” Razbuten said. The host made clear that no guidance would be given to the player. (This was followed by a joke about the couple’s marriage ending, along with a quickly stated asterisk of “That’s not true.”)

While we’ve seen essays and thinkpieces about the obfuscating “language” of video games and how that can be a barrier for those who didn’t grow up with the hobby, Razbuten’s video shines because it collects and presents clear video proof of his concerns. It starts with ‘s Level 1-1, often cited as a masterstroke in game design to teach players how to do things like jump, run, face enemies, and collect a power-up. Razbuten’s video points to the lack of clear “running” instructions inherent in the act of play, however, while he also examines one way that players could organically misunderstand how the iconic Super Mushroom moves around.

The other side-scrolling games in the test revealed their own awkward moments. In , the crucial act of air-dashing, required to reach distant ledges, is taught to the player with a seemingly innocuous prompt: press a button and an up-diagonal direction at the same time. As a result, the tester thought this was the  direction she could dash in, until an accidental button tap showed otherwise. And in , the death condition of having a bag of money appear as a “ghost” confused the tester and left her thinking this was an enemy to be avoided or attacked, not a helpful way to recoup lost items.


Meanwhile, the tester unsurprisingly got lost in 3D games for various reasons, most commonly due to information overload and unclear onscreen markers. (The video also noted confusion over the fact that, in one computer game, a mouse was needed to move the tester’s perspective, which she didn’t realize was required for nearly five minutes of play.)

More surprising than that was the tester’s issues with a lack of openness and possibility in terms of completing apparent objectives. In , an onscreen marker hints to a required step: walk up to an object, then press the “interact” button to move along. But this test’s player saw the onscreen marker on top of a scary-looking object and tried something else: awkwardly kicking an explosive barrel in the direction of said object, then blowing it up. It didn’t work.

To be fair, a huge number of genres, particularly puzzle, strategy, and sim games, are missing from this video, as are examples of touchscreen games whose inherent tactile perks may solve some of these concerns by default. Still, the video does an interesting job of selling the tester’s familiarity with computers, phones, and technology but not necessarily with the dense, underlying language of how traditional video games work. What’s an “L3” button? Do all games have “run” or “sprint” options built in? If something in the game world looks destructible, why can’t it be destroyed?

The resulting perspective is an interesting mix of rigid and wide open, and it speaks to how even seemingly “accessible” games can stand to make a little more room for brand-new eyes, especially as services like Apple Arcade, Google Stadia, and Microsoft Project xCloud loom as gaming entry points for people who have otherwise never owned a console.

Sam Machkovech Sam has written about the combined worlds of arts and tech since his first syndicated column launched in 1996. He can regularly be found losing quarters at Add-A-Ball in Seattle, WA.
Email[email protected]//Twitter@samred

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